“Tha-…it’s not…what?” I stammered at my friend before regaining my rage. “That’s completely besides the point!”
It was a simple question. Granted, not one I was hoping to hear after an hour-long tirade about all the things that had gone wrong with my day, but a simple one nonetheless. I brushed it aside and launched into another diatribe – this time about the clogged sewers outside my house that make it smell like a urinal cake – but the question nagged me. It nagged me through the tough chicken breast I had ordered instead of pasta because of fatty guilt. It nagged as I perused the chocolate desserts to make up for the chicken breast, the menu price now crossed out and replaced in handwritten black ink by a number almost double. It nagged me as I read heard a radio segment on the rising inflation and tanking economy on the drive home. It positively knifed me when I was stopped at a security check post by soldier who insisted on smelling my breath for booze. If I am honest, there are few times I am not thinking about it.
Why do I keep coming back to Pakistan if have a chance of a life outside of it?
I talked about the questions ad nauseam with my therapist last year, flipping one week and then flopping the next, until neither one of us was sure what my actual feelings on the matter were. But it did teach me that it’s not a simple question. It’s a loaded one.
I’ve been living a bifurcated life for nearly 15 years now, ricocheting between places and faces, nodding while saying “Yah, yah, here for a few months now”.
“It’s an enviable lifestyle,” someone once said to me, “how freeing for you!” Like others, they confuse the freedom of movement with freedom from responsibilities. But I also know that most people in the world tend to pick a place and stick to it. So why couldn’t I?
After I moved back to the United States five years ago on a green card, I sort of assumed that life itself had made that decision for me. There I would stay and find work and love and life and that would be it. I held on to this assumption even as I crisscrossed between New York and Lahore for extended periods of time, that real life was “there” and not “here.” In the time since then, I have found work and love and life – just not how I thought I would. Real life is just life, wherever it is.
Assessed honestly, the assumption that in order to live freely and happily I’d have to live elsewhere from Pakistan is a lesson I learned early on, as so many do here. At school I was too Anglicized, too colonized, too nerdy – all confusing to me because I went to a school literally created to produce out-of-touch Anglicized nerds. But the issue was wider than my classroom: outside of school, too, I was odd, too removed, too English-speaking, too effeminate, too arty, too fat. There was always something that made my presence here conspicuous, which for most is a synonym for bad. In a place where Immigration is the default dream, was it any wonder I was expected to leave?
Things should be better in college abroad, I said. And they were, much. It was a relief to not have to police myself before someone does it for me, a relief to know that the government wasn’t looking over my shoulder like an invigilator at an exam, hoping to catch me faulting so they could exact blame and punishment for simple human emotions like love or happiness. It was relief to be in a system that works for you rather than against you, and in a space where you could – by and large – trust that the future will arrive not already on fire.
But it was also a surprise to discover my Pakistani-ness only in the context of having left it. If I was too Anglicized here, over there they smiled at my funny name and made jokes about terrorism. Now I felt different in a new way; brown, Muslim, male, the ticking time-bomb of my visa expiry nearer with every day. And so it went on for the next decade: moving here, moving there, moving here, moving there.
I’ve had similar conversations with immigrant friends from other countries that were in crisis: Sudan, Lebanon, Egypt, Ukraine. I can recognize my country in all the things they tell me about theirs, and even from my position I can see that what happened to most of those countries in a matter of years is unfolding here over the course of decades. It’s not just the fear that one day life in Pakistan will become unlivable. It’s the awful realization that it already is. We are, every one of us, dealing with the psychic trauma of an unraveling homeland in the best ways we know. I don’t think it’s a burden we will ever shed, here or anywhere.
Why do keep coming back then? Because I want to.
But the more heartbreaking question is why we leave, to which the only answer I’ve found is: because we have to.